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Rockefeller Library celebrates 50 years

To commemorate, library plans 50th-anniversary bash with free food, live music

On November 16, 1964, the Rockefeller Library opened its doors, featuring signs of the times like smoking rooms and a pneumatic tube messaging system. In honor of the half-century anniversary of this cornerstone of the University, the Rock 50 Committee has developed a series of events, exhibits and commemorative paraphernalia to publicize and celebrate this milestone of the library’s rich and fabled past. 


 50 Rock

The Rock 50 Committee has launched a branding campaign with calendars, bookmarks, brochures and banners, said Daniel O’Mahony, director of library planning and assessment for the Rock, adding that the library will host a campus-wide event featuring music, food and performances Nov. 14. In tandem with these festivities, an exhibit in the Rock’s lobby throughout the fall semester honors the library’s history with photos and documents.

The committee also took its publicity efforts online with the Rock 50 website, which highlights key events in the library’s history, scans of news clippings from The Herald about the Rock and pictures of study spaces as they appear today.

The website also includes “Rock Memories,” a compilation of testaments from students, alumni and staff who have utilized the Rock demonstrating how the space has been perceived and occupied over the years, said Sarah Bordac, head of instructional design at the Rock.

In recent years, many Rock staff members have retired, said Karen Bouchard, scholarly resources librarian for art and architecture. The video component of “Rock Memories” aims to preserve the oral histories of these longtime staffers.

“There’s a 50-year history that is something that alums and students alike can come together and celebrate,” Bordac said. “It’s such a core part of the campus.”


Classic Rock

Before the age of the Rock, the University Grammar School sat on the familiar peak on College Hill. The school was an appendage of the University and served as an all-boys prep school that readied its students for college, according to the exhibit. In 1902, the University Grammar School was razed to make way for a University administration building. When these administration functions moved to University Hall in 1940, the English department took over the space, rechristening it Van Wickle Hall. The whole edifice was demolished in 1962 when plans for the Rockefeller Library were set in motion.

According to O’Mahony, University administration felt the need for another library because the main library at the time, the John Hay Library, was over-crowded with students and resources. Students were excited to forsake “the dingy, dark, decrepit Hay for this brand new, sparkling Rockefeller Library,” he said.

Decades ago, the Rock stood out not only because of its prime location at the top of College Hill, but also because of its modern, Brutalist architecture, which was completely alien to the ivy-and-brick structures that colonized campus, O’Mahony said. The library was also equipped with the age’s most cutting-edge technology.

A pneumatic tube messaging system brought call numbers to student workers in the stacks who would subsequently find the requested book, according to Bouchard. State-of-the-art typewriters featured “delete” buttons, a source of much excitement for the library staff, she added.

But while the systems may have been innovative at the time, “it may not always feel like that” to today’s library users, Bordac said.

Out of the Stone Age

The advent of electronic resources dictated major changes for libraries worldwide, including the Rock, said Howard Stone, catalogue librarian in technical services.

Libraries of the ’60s aimed to maximize space for book storage rather than for people, according to David Banush, associate university librarian for access services and collection management.

As library users transitioned from hard-copy books to e-resources, study space, rather than book storage, became the Rock’s priority, Bouchard said.

This shift in research methods resulted in a drop in library material circulation numbers, Banush said. Library acquisitions today focus more on electronic materials than print materials, and the University currently uses the Library Collection Annex, a high-density storage area four miles off campus, to store surplus books, particularly those the staff members deem rarely used.


Alternative Rock

The culture and spaces the Rock offers have made it a destination of students and staff, who discover and inhabit their own nooks within the library.

Bouchard said she enjoys working at the Rock because of the variety of people that she encounters, especially while at the reference desk.

Rachael Meade GS said she usually studies in the graduate student lounge on the second floor, citing the big windows as the space’s primary appeal.

Marques Love ’17 said he gravitates towards the Rock, rather than the Sciences Library, because the study rooms on the fourth floor help him concentrate, adding that the Naked Donut Run is one of his favorite Rock traditions.

But feedback isn’t all positive. According to the Rock 50 website, students have been complaining about the lack of electric outlets, the 10 p.m. closing time on Saturdays and a paucity of vending machines since 1964.


Stepping stones: What’s next for the Rock?

The Rock’s future includes the current expansion of study spaces, according to Bordac. The reference area on the first floor is undergoing renovation, and seating and computer desks will replace the looming stacks, leaving an unobstructed view from the windows out to downtown Providence.

Preservation and documentation efforts will also continue, Bordac said, especially in light of the Rock’s upcoming anniversary. “By celebrating (the) history of (the) building, we’re also charting how the building has been used consistently and also differently over the past 50 years,” she said.


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